High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
Early in 1977 Stroup wrote Phil Walden, the burly young president
of Georgia-based Capricorn Records, asking for a chance to tell
him about NORML'S work. Walden, the manager of the Allman Brothers
Band and an early financial supporter of Jimmy Carter, was known
as an intelligent, politically astute man. Stroup hoped that Walden,
having seen the Allman Brothers Band destroyed by drugs and a
drug trial, would understand the need for drug-law reform and
thus would support NORML. Stroup especially hoped that Walden
would help him persuade some rock groups to give benefit performances
Since the first days of NORML, Stroup had sought help from the
entertainment world, and with some success. He'd got benefits
or public-service tapes from Kris Kristofferson, before he was
a superstar, and from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, blues singer
Jimmy Witherspoon, and comedian George Carlin. But the biggest
names, the ones who could produce the most money, had eluded him.
Increasingly, by 1977, he was courting stars like Willie Nelson,
Jimmy Buffet, and the Eagles, hanging out backstage with them,
playing groupie, but always pressing them to do a NORML benefit.
Many promises were made, many drugs were consumed, but the concerts
never seemed to happen. The stars were always agreeable, but not
the managers and lawyers who advised them. Stroup guessed it was
because the musicians were all so vulnerable to arrest, and they
or their managers feared that support of NORML might anger the
police or prosecutors who could bust them almost at will. Still,
Stroup kept trying. His dream was a big NORML benefit concert
in the South, with the proceeds going to open a Southern regional
office in Atlanta, and in time he came to think of Walden as the
man who could make that dream come true.
Walden responded to Stroup's letter with an invitation to come
down to Capricorn's annual picnic that summer. Stroup did, rubbed
elbows with a lot of musicians, and hit it off well with Walden,
who agreed to join NORML'S advisory board. Stroup knew it could
not hurt him, in status-conscious Washington, to have such a close
friend of the president on his advisory board, and it was always
possible that he could use Walden to bypass Peter Bourne and put
his case directly to Carter, on paraquat and other issues.
On April 11, 1978, Stroup wrote Walden and urged him to discuss
the paraquat issue with President Carter if he had the opportunity.
Stroup still believed that Carter was being misled by his advisers,
and that if he knew the truth about the spraying program he would
see that it was both morally wrong and politically insane. He
added, in his letter to Walden, that he would himself be glad
to discuss the paraquat issue with Chip Carter. That seemed unlikely,
however, given the way he had embarrassed Chip fourteen months
earlier over his decision not to testify in New Mexico. But one
afternoon a few days later, Walden called and told Stroup he was
just leaving the White House and he would drop by NORML in a few
minutes and bring Chip Carter with him.
Stroup warned Lesyle Williams, NORML's receptionist, that if some
men with guns arrived, it wasn't a raid, only the Secret Service.
Moments later, Walden, Carter, and two men with bulges on their
hips arrived. Walden left Carter in the outer office while he
went into Stroup's office; this wasn't rudeness but a way of protecting
the president's son if Walden and Stroup wanted to share a joint.
Meanwhile, the Secret Service men, not sure what den of iniquity
they'd been brought to, locked the front and back doors and announced
that no one was to enter or leave without their approval.
Lesyle Williams, a vivacious, dark-haired woman, soon engaged
the two agents in conversation and was pressing NORML brochures
on them. Across the room, George Farnham was trying, with much
less enthusiasm, to make conversation with Chip Carter. Farnham's
work on the paraquat issue had given him a vast disdain for the
Carter administration, presidential sons included, but to make
the best of the situation he tried to tell Chip about paraquat.
It didn't go well. Chip seemed uninformed about the issue and
not eager to learn. When Farnham tried to give Carter a copy of
NORML'S legal brief, he refused it, as if he were being served
with some sort of summons.
Just then, Walden called Carter into Stroup's office, and the
three of them settled down to talk. Stroup was all charm that
afternoon. He told Carter that he regretted his leak to Jack Anderson
the previous year, that he'd feared the Carter administration
was backing away from decriminalization, but he'd later seen he
was wrong. He went on to outline NORML'S current political priorities:
medical reclassification, a federal decriminalization bill, and,
most of all, stopping the paraquat spraying. Chip listened politely,
asked some questions, and said he'd like to know-more. Soon,
Walden said he and Chip had better be going. It had been only
a get-acquainted call, a favor Walden was doing for his friends
at NORML. After that, it would be up to Stroup to follow through.
Stroup saw young Carter's visit as purely business. Chip was the
Carter administration's unofficial ambassador to the youth culture,
and Stroup assumed that he therefore saw the pot lobby as part
of his political responsibility. As Stroup saw it, he wanted things
from the Carter administration and the Carter administration wanted
things from him: You make me; I make you. Certainly he was excited
at the prospect of using the president's son as a way to bypass
Peter Bourne and the bureaucrats and to present the anti-paraquat
case directly to the president.
At the same time, on a personal level, Stroup liked Chip, and
thought they had a lot in common. Both were small-town boys who
were fascinated with politics and who also enjoyed parties, celebrities,
life in the fast lane. Stroup saw Chip as much like himself five
years earlier, a young man determined to make a name for himself
in the political world, except that when Stroup was starting out,
he had been spared the burden of a father who was president. When
Chip left NORML'S office that first afternoon, Stroup intended
to send him data on paraquat and to request another, more formal
meeting. As it turned out, he soon had an unexpected chance to
lobby Chip in an informal setting.
One of Stroup's friends was John Walsh, an editor with the Washington
Post's " Style" section. Walsh was a plump white-haired
man of thirty or so, an albino, who had previously been an editor
with Rolling Stone. He maintained his contacts in the music
world, and when Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson played the Capital
Centre that month, he got tickets and chartered a bus to take
a party of journalists and political people to the concert. Stroup
managed to miss the bus, but when he arrived, Walsh came over
and gave him a backstage pass and whispered that Willie wanted
to talk to him after the concert. That was good news: Stroup had
been after Willie Nelson for months to do a NORML concert.
Stroup made his way backstage and spent some time hanging out
with the band. He had some cocaine and good Colombian marijuana
with him, for it was rock-world protocol that you always offered
drugs to the musicians, although they usually had better drugs
than you did. He noticed that Jody Powell and some other White
House people were backstage, and after a while he was pleased
to have his new friend Chip Carter come over and join him. They
watched the show together for a while, and when the concert was
over, Carter asked Stroup what was happening next. Stroup said
he was going over to Willie's motel to party for a while. Chip
asked directions and said he'd meet him there.
When the postconcert party assembled, in a Holiday Inn near the
Capital Centre, there were a dozen or so people present: Willie
and Waylon; two or three members of the band; Chip Carter and
his wife, Caron; the actor Jan-Michael Vincent; Stroup's friend
Fred Moore; and Stroup and a friend from Atlanta, Marlene Gaskill.
Stroup had met Marlene back in the early days of NORML. She was
married then, and she smoked. Then she heard on the radio about
a meeting to organize a NORML chapter, and she reasoned that if
she was going to smoke, she should at least be trying to change
the laws. So she went to the meeting, and met Stroup, and after
that he would stay at her house when he was in Atlanta. Marlene
would drive him around to interviews, and she could remember times
when radio stations weren't sure they should let him on the air,
for fear he was some kind of drug dealer. But Marlene liked him,
and what he stood for, and she became a NORML volunteer. She spoke
at colleges and to PTAs, and she thought it was wonderful how
polite people were to her, even parents who strongly disagreed
with her. She guessed it was because she was herself a mother
and a businesswoman and a Southerner. In time, Marlene separated
from her husband and quit her job. She had some money, she was
forty years old, and she decided she wanted to enjoy life. This
trip to Washington was certainly an example: partying with Keith
and Willie and Waylon, plus Chip and Caron Carter. Marlene had
to laugh. Keith had certainly come up in the world since the days
when he slept on her sofa.
The party was in a typical Holiday Inn room, with two beds and
only two chairs in it. Chip was sitting in one of the chairs,
and Paul, Willie's drummer and close friend, was slouched in the
other. Paul always dressed in black and stared coldly at people
and rarely spoke. Everyone else stood or sat on the beds. They
had some soft drinks, but they couldn't find any ice. Marlene
thought it was about as relaxed, down-home a party as she'd ever
been to. There was a lot of talk and laughter, and a few dirty
jokes, but nothing too dirty. Marlene was wearing her Coca-Cola
T-shirt, which was a patriotic act if you were from Atlanta, but
it gave rise to a lot of cocaine jokes. Chip and Caron had on
jeans, and Willie had on his jeans and red bandanna. Keith was
huddled with Chip and Willie, talking politics the way he always
did, talking to Chip about rock concerts he'd helped organize
for the president's campaign, asking if Chip could help persuade
any groups to play a NORML benefit. When Keith urged Willie to
do a NORML benefit in Austin, Willie's adopted home, unless that
would cause him any problems there, Willie growled, "There
ain't nothing I can do that would be unpopular in Austin."
Keith was rolling joints and passing them around, and that had
bothered Marlene, until she realized that Chip's Secret Service
men were out in the hall to protect them, not to hassle anybody.
At first someone had locked the door, but an agent had banged
on it and told them, "Look, we don't care what you do in
there, but just don't lock the door." That was when Chip
had said, "Keith, for God's sake put that dope away."
Marlene talked mostly to Caron Carter, a slender, vivacious young
woman with dark hair and bright brown eyes, who she thought was
one of the most attractive people she'd ever met. Caron seemed
so happy to be here. The White House could be so stuffy, she said,
so formal, and it was so rare for her and Chip to get a chance
to wear jeans and sit cross-legged on a bed and talk to people
without any political pressures. Caron talked about the 1976 campaign
and how exhausting it had been, and Willie broke in and said he
knew what she meant, that he and the boys had been touring in
their bus since December with only fourteen days off.
Caron told how she sometimes saw the president at breakfast and
he would say how his advisers were always urging him to do the
expedient thing, the political thing, but he wanted to know what
was the right thing. Keith chimed in, half joking, and
said he hoped that the next time Chip was having breakfast with
his dad, he'd urge him to do the right thing about paraquat. Chip
said he understood that it was a Mexican program, not a U.S. program,
and there was no evidence that it was hurting anybody, and Keith
said that might be what Peter Bourne told him, but it wasn't true.
Willie spoke up and said he'd heard of this marijuana-spraying
down in Mexico and didn't like it worth a damn. There was some
more talk about paraquat, all very friendly and relaxed, and finally
Chip and Caron said they'd better be going.
Stroup was jubilant. Talk about doing it with mirrors! Willie
had come away thinking Stroup always hung out with the president's
son, and Chip had come away thinking Stroup always hung out with
Willie Nelson. He hadn't pinned Willie down on a NORML concert,
not yet. Willie had reached that level of celebrity at which you
had to move slowly, to cultivate his entourage, to study his moods.
It was like dealing with Hefner. And Chip's stopping by had been
a great bonus: It was good for Chip to see how seriously Willie
took the paraquat issue. Those bastards at State might think paraquat
was a joke, but in Willie Nelson's world, poisoned marijuana was
deadly serious. Stroup thought the evening had gone perfectly.
He hadn't pushed Chip, hadn't embarrassed him, had kept it friendly.
Stroup was increasingly impressed with Chip Carter, with how effortlessly
political he was. The more he thought about it, the more Stroup
regretted that Chip hadn't testified in New Mexico the year before.
The kid was so damn smooth he might have got the bill through.
On June 1 Stroup's friends Fred Moore and Billy Paley had the
grand opening of their new restaurant-nightclub, the Biltmore
Ballroom. It was on Columbia Road, a racially mixed neighborhood
in Northwest Washington, in what had once been a ballroom on the
second floor of an old building. Stroup arrived at the club around
nine and found it packed with media and political people. He sipped
a glass of champagne and from time to time stepped into the men's
room to snort cocaine with someone. He chatted for a while with
John Walsh, and with Ed Bradley, the talented CBS correspondent,
and then to his surprise he found himself face to face with a
slender black man named Sterling Tucker, the chairman of the D.C.
city council, who was running for mayor.
Stroup grumbled a hello; Sterling Tucker was not one of his favorite
"Well, Keith, I hope you'll support my candidacy," Tucker
"I don't think so," Stroup shot back. "You sold
us out on the decrim bill."
"No, no," Tucker protested. "I supported that bill.
You stick with me."
The defeat of the D.C. bill a year earlier had hurt, because it
meant that Stroup continued to be officially a criminal in his
hometown. Still, he was enjoying the exchange because a Washington
Post reporter was watching, and it was fun to see Tucker
squirm as he wondered what she might write.
Tucker made his escape, Stroup laughed and sipped his champagne,
and then someone spoke to him. He turned and saw Chip Carter,
whom he hadn't seen since the night of the Willie-Waylon concert,
although they'd talked by phone. Stroup's lobbying effort had
thus far been unsuccessful. Chip had talked to Peter Bourne, who'd
given him the official line about the spraying's being entirely
a Mexican program. But Stroup's exchanges with Carter had been
friendly, and they'd talked about the NORML-White House softball
game that was coming up and about taking Chip's sister, Amy, and
Stroup's daughter, Lindsey, who attended public school together,
to the premiere of International Velvet at the Kennedy
Center. Stroup continued to be impressed by Chip and to like him.
He thought of theirs as a political friendship, a relationship
often seen in Washington, in which personal regard existed but
was never entirely innocent of political motivation, on either
Chip was uncomfortable because he didn't know many of the people
there in the Biltmore Ballroom. Stroup, who knew most of them,
moved quickly to turn the situation to his advantage.
"Let me introduce you around," he said, and led the
president's son along the bar that divided the ballroom. He made
introductions and gave Carter whispered explanations of who was
what. It was the sort of assistance that presidents and their
families expect when they make public appearances, and of course
Stroup gloried in the role of Carter-administration insider and
power broker. He was impressed, once again, by how smooth, how
professional, Chip was. Still, it was work, and soon Chip had
shaken all the hands he cared to. "Let's get out of here,"
he said. Stroup asked where he wanted to go. Carter said he didn't
care. "Let's go to my place, then," Stroup said.
Stroup had moved from the room over his office to a $126-a-month
efficiency apartment in an ancient apartment house called the
Marcheta, which was on New Hampshire Avenue, a few blocks from
NORML. The apartment was perhaps twenty by twenty and featured
a sagging sofa, lots of dirty clothes and paperback books tossed
about, a stereo, and plenty of Willie Nelson and Delbert McClinton
Stroup and his guests drove to the Marcheta in separate cars.
Chip arrived with his friend Kevin Smith and two Secret Service
agents. The agents agreed to wait in the lobby while Stroup, Carter,
and Smith took the elevator to Stroup's apartment on the seventh
floor. There they proceeded to put on some records and, for the
most part, talk about paraquat. There was some talk of other subjectsof
politics, of music, of womenbut Stroup kept turning the conversation
back to paraquat, because for him this was one more priceless
opportunity to enlist the president's son in his cause. Chip seemed
interested, concerned, but he also seemed to have bought the Peter
Bourne-State Department line, and Stroup was determined to make
sure he understood NORML'S view, both as to the physical harm
that poisoned paraquat was doing to Americans and the political
harm it was doing to the Carter administration.
The key, Stroup insisted, was to get the facts to the president.
Chip agreed, but stressed that he would have to talk to Bourne
again, would have to make sure he had the facts straight, so he
could not be accused of meddling. Stroup said he understood that,
and he was delighted at how seriously Chip took the issue and
at his promise that he would talk to his father about it. When
Chip finally left the Marcheta, sometime past midnight, to return
to his more elegant lodgings in the White House, Stroup counted
it a good night's work.
By the time Stroup and Chip Carter were becoming friendly, in
the late spring of 1978, Stroup had already, among other things,
leaked an embarrassing story about Chip to Jack Anderson, threatened
to expose Peter Bourne's drug use in retaliation for the Angarola
letter, and filed a major lawsuit against the government over
paraquat. Moreover, Stroup was a controversial figure whose use
of various illegal drugs was well known. Given all that, it might
be asked what the president's son, as well as many lesser administration
figures, were doing associating with Stroup.
The answer is part political, part personal. Politically, Stroup
was there, a force to be reckoned with. If you were Peter Bourne,
or anyone in government who was concerned with the drug issue,
you would have to deal with Stroup. He had a large constituency,
he was well plugged into the media, and he could help you or hurt
you. But it was more than political.
Official Washington is a very dull place, and it was fun to drop
by NORML'S office, to listen to some music, to hear the latest
gossip, to get high. If people didn't always understand that while
they were playing, Stroup was workingthat turning people on
was part of a pot lobbyist's jobthen that was their problem.
Ten days after Chip Carter came by Stroup's apartment, the long-awaited
softball game between NORML'S staff and the White House staff
was played. The game came about after Tim Kraft arranged for several
members of NORML to tour the White House. As NORML'S people wandered
wide-eyed through the West Wing, someone asked if they played
softball. Sure we play softball, the dopers declared, and a challenge
was made and accepted.
NORML'S people prepared for the game with practice sessions, new
T-shirts (featuring a softball with a garland of marijuana leaves),
and some new cheers written by Eric Sirulnik, a law professor
who was working on the paraquat suit. As it turned out, the game
was played on a cold, windy day; the dope lobbyists showed little
aptitude for softball; the White House team won easily; and the
day's best moment for the NORML team was one of Professor Sirulnik's
Spray our dope;
White House team
The summer was starting off well for the marijuana lobby. Even
when Chip Carter called to report that his father would not be
moved on the paraquat issue, that he believed the spraying to
be necessary and just, Stroup was not greatly upset. For one thing,
no lobbyist could ask for more than to have his case put directly
to the president, by his own son, even if the decision went against
him. No, for Stroup, the important thing was that he and NORML
finally had acceptance, respectability, lines of communication
to the highest levels of government. If you had that kind of status,
you would win more battles than you lost. What Stroup could not
foresee, as July arrived, was that within weeks all that hard-won
status and respectability would be gone, destroyed by a senseless
drug scandal, and the White House door would be slammed in his
face for good.